52 years ago, in Park Ridge, IL, a 28-year-old woman labored in Lutheran General Hospital for 20 hours and gave birth to me.
Yesterday, we were together again, at 8:30am, inside UCLA Medical in Santa Monica, CA to hear the news that her cancer had spread from lung to bone and most likely would kill her within months.
There were tears in the office, and treatment talked of but not promised, because there was not much that could be done to arrest and blockade a disfiguring and painful disease. Aggressive killing cells, moving fast, were taking over every bodily pathway and steering this woman, my mother, into death.
Back at the apartment, I called 90-year-old Aunt Millie, my mother’s sister in Chicago, to tell her a grave prognosis. Simultaneously, we burst out crying, she wailing that her little sister was not supposed to die before her.
Later on, in the sun, I sat with my mother in the open door of her apartment, by her knee, as she spoke of her disbelief. I told her I didn’t want to see her in any pain, that if she had to die, it should be quickly.
To wish your mother to die faster seems obscene, blasphemous, selfish.
But every choice pondered, in treatment or without, lead into the same dead end: 2 months, 4 months, 8 months…
A vulture phoned later, a cousin who traffics in crystals and angelic communications. He spoke, like an infomercial, of “amazing” cures down in Mexico, and “unbelievable” results.
Topped in yarmulke and baptized in mysticism, he droned on in monologue, flavoring his pitch with prestige (“Harvard” and “M.I.T”), cliche and promise (“Think outside the box” and “alternative treatment”). Gross and unrelenting in salesmanship and insanity, the voice of this bearded charlatan claimed godlike knowledge that might save a dying person.
But the huckster claiming the miracle cure has no power over us.
Our immediate family was inoculated in skepticism, disbelieving in the afterlife, doubtful of religious fervor, resigned to believe that death is death and without merit except in its extinction of pain.
Dreams of heaven were not on my mind, only the distant past.
I saw again the Super 8 movies taken by my father as my mother pushed a stroller around Indian Boundry Park in Chicago in early Spring, her black hair and skirt blowing in the March winds. I saw days spent with my younger mother in love, the warm breath of life, memory, kisses, spaghetti sauce cooking on the stove, the days spent on the porch watching the rain pour down on Birchwood Drive; I also recalled the explorations into old neighborhoods, the angry fights, the dramas and battles over bad report cards, the shame when I came out and my eventual acceptance and her grudging respect, the fierce warrior who always thought my best days were still to come; she with her inexhaustible conversations and inability to stay silent long, how can her voice go away! How can my mute words replace life itself, extinguished cruelly and helplessly by the biological necessity of dying?
2/19/14: a dark day, an unforgettable birthday. It ended, as many days in Los Angeles do, eating sushi. Me, my brother, my sister-in-law and my 7-year-old nephew went out to dinner, drank sake and split raw fish rolls. And I blew out a single candle on top of vanilla ice cream and fried bananas as the entire restaurant sang Happy Birthday.